STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne. Some Americans are spending time this week considering the future in Iraq. The nominee for defense secretary takes questions in a Washington hearing room today.

INSKEEP: He testifies in the same week that an independent commission proposes a way forward. And as they do so, here is some of the latest news from Iraq.

AMOS: A series of attacks killed at least 30 people today in Baghdad alone. In one attack, insurgents set off a car bomb next to a passing bus.

INSKEEP: The bus was carrying employees of a Shiite Muslim group that oversees mosques. And after the explosion, gunmen sprayed the area with bullets.

AMOS: Last weekend was a deadly one for Americans. A total of 13 U.S. troops died, including four whose helicopter was forced to land in a lake.

INSKEEP: News like that only adds urgency to the work of one of the most ubiquitous people in American politics. He holds no elected office and no Cabinet post. But when people are asked about Iraq's future, James Baker's name is everywhere.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I also look forward to hearing recommendations on the way forward in Iraq from a bipartisan panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker…

Unidentified Man (Reporter): Mr. Bush spent an hour and a half today talking to the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker, who was secretary of state under the president's father…

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): He is apparently going to embrace many, if not all, of the recommendations of the bipartisan of the Baker-Hamilton Commission on the way forward in Iraq.

AMOS: That's Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute thinks of it this way.

Mr. JAMES ZOGBY (Arab American Institute): We're left in a situation of sort of like Waiting for Godot, except Godot's name is Baker.

AMOS: Since we're waiting, think of this report as one of those magazine articles that you flip through in the dentist's office. The magazine happens to fall open to a profile of James Baker.

INSKEEP: Baker is the chairman of a commission set up by Congress. Its recommendations come out tomorrow. This group gets special attention in part because its chairman is so close to President Bush.

Mr. JAMES BAKER (Former Secretary of State): The president told me earlier on in the administration whenever you're in Washington, please call my secretary. You know, don't go through the system. Just call my secretary and tell her you're going to be here. And if it's convenient, if I can do it, I would very much like to see you.

INSKEEP: Baker told the public radio program FRESH AIR that he does see the president often. He's from the president's home state of Texas, where the journalist Tom DeFrank traced his family history.

Mr. TOM DEFRANK (Journalist): Born and raised in Houston from a long line of lawyers, the Bakers. His grandfather, Captain Baker, was one of the founders of Rice Institute, now Rice University. Went to school at the Hill School, which is a private prep school in Pennsylvania. Went to Princeton.

INSKEEP: When you go through that blue chip upscale upbringing, did he ever rebel?

Mr. DEFRANK: No. Jim Baker - somebody once said to me he was the only guy in college who wore Brooks Brothers shirts every day.

INSKEEP: The Texas lawyer's life changed in 1970 after his first wife died. In a memoir he writes that an old friend offered him a job in politics, quote, “to take my mind off my grief.” The old friend was George H.W. Bush, who was on the way to becoming president and father of a president. James Baker stayed in politics. He ran a campaign for president Gerald Ford in 1976, and in the ‘80s he became chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. MICHAEL DEAVER (Reagan Adviser): Baker was a political animal. I mean you could smell it.

INSKEEP: Reagan adviser Michael Deaver says Baker coordinated the White House approach to the media and to Congress.

Mr. DEAVER: Baker always had his hand on all the moving parts. And to this day I don't know how he did it. And, you know, Baker was one of these guys who never had a piece of paper on his desk. A bad administrator is somebody who gets inundated by paperwork, can't make decisions, puts them off, that sort of thing.

Baker had to make a decision. He'd walk into my office with that single piece of paper and say get this done.

INSKEEP: His assertiveness went on display years later when Baker advised George W. Bush in the disputed presidential election of 2000.

Mr. BAKER: The rule of law has prevailed.

INSKEEP: He directed the campaign in Florida, and his public statements had a way of deftly knifing the opposition.

Mr. BAKER: We will therefore vigorously oppose the Gore campaign's efforts to keep recounting over and over until it happens to like the result.

INSKEEP: Is he the kind of person who enjoys it when people turn to him and say, okay, Jim Baker, carry the ball. Save my campaign. Save the election in Florida. Work out a plan for Iraq.

Ms. MARGARET TUTWILER (Former Baker Spokeswoman): If he's stimulated by complex problems and problem solving, yes.

INSKEEP: That's Margaret Tutwiler who was Baker's spokeswoman as he took on another complex problem. He was secretary of state for his old friend, the first President Bush. And Baker tried to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.

Mr. DENNIS ROSS (Former Baker Aide): Baker's reputation in the region is not someone who is easy to deal with.

INSKEEP: That's a former Baker aide, Dennis Ross, a Democrat who also worked for President Clinton.

Mr. ROSS: The perception is he's tough but he's also straightforward and you can count on what he says.

INSKEEP: Can you remember a time where he got angry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSS: I laugh because, yes, his anger at times could be legendary.

INSKEEP: Like the time that Baker was negotiating with two key Palestinians.

Mr. ROSS: They started the meeting by opening up issues that he thought had been closed. He had his notebook and he clapped it shut loudly, stood up and said, with you people the souk is never closed but it's closed with me, and he walked out. The two of them were just dumbfounded and asked me to see if I could go get him to come back.

I went to see him, and he was pacing. And I said, okay, they've agreed to drop what they were now asking. They'll accept what you were pushing before. And he looked at me, and he was still mad but said okay. I said, do you want to come back? He says not just yet.

INSKEEP: James Baker's knowledge of the Middle East will shape the recommendations that his commission releases this week. In that interview on FRESH AIR, he remembered negotiating with Mideast powers that the current administration shuns.

Mr. BAKER: When we were gearing up an unprecedented international coalition in connection with the first Gulf War, we were even able, by talking to Syria, to get them to join the coalition to kick an Arab neighbor out of Kuwait through the use of force. They even sent a division of troops down to fight alongside American forces.

And, you know, my view is you talk to - you don't talk just to friends, you talk as well to your enemies.

INSKEEP: As secretary of state, James Baker was not able to establish a durable Mideast peace and now he faces a conflict that's even more complicated. That's according to former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.

Make a list for me. Who are the constituencies or constituents who have to all be satisfied in order for this to be a plan that's not dead on arrival.

Mr. ROSS: Well, number one, President Bush has to be prepared to accept it. Number two, he certainly wants the group - he said it publicly, he wants the group to embrace us on the consensus…

INSKEEP: Democrats and Republicans on this commission.

Mr. ROSS: That's right. And number three, the public in this country, which obviously in a sense has just voted. Number four, I think he was looking at the region as a whole, the Middle East as a whole. Number five, I mean I haven't mentioned the Iraqis and I - you know, the fact that he's got to contend with just the maelstrom that is Iraq today is maybe five, six and seven.

INSKEEP: Which is why James Baker's old friend Michael Deaver has his doubts about the commission that has been so eagerly followed in the news.

Mr. DEAVER: Well, as a communicator, I worry about the expectations being too high. I worry that, you know, all of the sudden the Baker Commission is going to be the solution. There isn't anybody that can bring a solution here.

INSKEEP: At the age of 76, James Baker has a role in a political play, the script for which has been followed before. By tradition, experts are called in to study a problem and propose difficult solutions that politicians might have trouble proposing themselves. The challenge with Iraq is to actually have a solution.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: I'm looking here at a timeline of James Baker's career starting from when he was born in Houston April 28th, 1930. You can see that timeline on our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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